Commentary

IOC all about the money

Hosting Olympics comes with uncertain -- but certainly large -- price tag

Originally Published: September 30, 2009
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

CHICAGO -- It's not that I have anything against the Olympics. I just have something against the Olympics' coming to Chicago.

Don't get me wrong: I like watching Ukrainians twirl ribbons on sticks (rhythmic gymnastics) as much as the next person. And is there anything better than the individual dressage competition (equestrian)?

OK, cheap shots. But this breathless countdown to Friday's bid vote by the International Olympic Committee is embarrassing. Chicago is going to be no more of a world-class city if the IOC awards the 2016 Summer Games to us, just as it's going to be no less of a world-class city if the IOC chooses another wallet.

Yes, wallet. That's what the finalists -- Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Madrid -- are to the IOC voting members. You can blather on and on about the Olympic spirit and "Let Friendship Shine" (Chicago's official Olympic slogan), but the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. As always, follow the money.

The IOC is no different than, say, NASCAR. If you want Carl Edwards' backflip or Kyle Busch's burnout, you have to build a venue and then convince NASCAR to bring its product to your track. And you have to make it worth its financial while in the sanctioning agreement.

Same thing goes for the Olympics. The IOC provides the product (the copyrighted Olympic rings, the athletes and the cachet) and in return, cities spend tens of millions on the bid process and billions on the infrastructure, facilities, transportation and security for the Games themselves. The Chicago bid cost an astounding $48 million plus, and the price tag for the operating budget is an estimated (emphasis on estimated) $3.8 billion and another $1 billion (estimated) on construction.

Nobody asked if we actually wanted the Olympics here. They just did it, just as the Chicago City Council decided recently to guarantee any financial shortfalls. Chicago Olympic committee officials insist there will be no shortfalls, that the City Council's vote simply eases the minds of IOC members, that the last three U.S.-based Olympics (Los Angeles, Atlanta and Salt Lake City) finished with financial surpluses. Then again, what do you expect organizers to say? That cost overruns are likely? That the budget for the 2012 Games in London has nearly tripled from the original estimates?

True, there are insurance policies in place. But this is Chicago and Illinois. Things happen. Example: Rod Blagojevich.

Still, the "Countdown to Decision Day" clock ticks away on the Chicago2016.org Web site. Big rally at Daley Plaza on Friday morning. Local land and building developers no doubt will supply the pom-poms.

President Barack Obama will be in Copenhagen to schmooze IOC voters and to help make Chicago's Olympic presentation. If he can do Letterman, he can do Denmark, right?

The First Lady also will be in Copenhagen. No, not Oprah, but Michelle Obama. Of course, Oprah will be there too.

Anyway, this is what it's come to: You have to charm IOC voters. In the old days, you just bribed them.

[+] EnlargeOlympic Protesters
Scott Olson/Getty ImagesThese people aren't thrilled with the idea of the Olympics in Chicago. Neither is Gene Wojciechowski.
But here's the thing: Chicago doesn't need an opening act, even one as well-meaning and impressive as the Obamas. If the IOC can't appreciate the city, acne and all, for what it is and what it can be, then who needs the Olympics? Same goes for Madrid, Tokyo and Rio, all of which will be represented in Copenhagen by presidents, kings and prime ministers.

But the Olympics, said a friend of mine who has spent the last 35 years in Atlanta, will transform Chicago into an international city. "You should want it for the instant international exposure," he said.

I covered the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. Nothing personal, but nobody flew back home to Europe or Asia thinking they had just seen the next great metropolis. County fair, yes. The newest Paris, no.

And these people who keep saying the Olympics add value to a city don't get it. Having the 1960 Summer Games didn't make Rome a more complete city. Michelangelo took care of that centuries earlier. Beijing didn't become more desirable because Michael Phelps wore a Speedo there.

But, say the proponents, the Olympics will revitalize Chicago. That's one of the arguments: The Games will breast-feed economic development and progress. That's nice. But how about revitalizing local schools, hospitals and police departments? Page 2 headline in Tuesday's USA Today: Obama to give final push to his hometown's bid for 2016 Olympics. Page 3 headline: Violence haunts Chicago streets.

I'm not anti-Olympics; I'm pro-caution. And I'm not alone. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN poll revealed that 47 percent of Chicagoans supported the local Olympic plan, while 45 percent were against it. Here's guessing those polling numbers won't be mentioned during the U.S. presentation to the 99 eligible IOC voters.

You see the Chicago Olympic banners and signs everywhere in the city and at the airports. "Imagine," they read.

Fair enough. We'll imagine. Imagine the best. But don't be afraid to imagine the worst.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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